BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s most wanted fugitive was arrested in the capital Beijing Saturday after being deported from Canada where he lived in exile for 12 years.
Lai Changxing, 53, arrived at Beijing’s international airport Saturday afternoon, where Chinese police “announced his arrest and read him his rights, including hiring lawyers to defend himself, after he was transferred by the Canadian side,” state news agency Xinhua reported, citing the ministry of public security.
The extradition ended a decades-long saga that had plagued Sino-Canadian relations.
Beijing has sought the deportation of Lai, accusing him of running a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation in the southeastern city of Xiamen in the 1990s in one of China’s biggest political scandals in decades.
A Canadian lawyer for Lai said he had been put on a plane from Canada Friday, after a court cleared the way on Thursday for Lai’s extradition, dismissing concerns that he could be tortured or executed back home.
“Lai’s repatriation once again shows that no matter where a criminal suspect flees, he or she cannot evade legal sanctions in the end,” Xinhua quoted the ministry of public security as saying.
Lai fled to Canada with his family in 1999 and claimed refugee status, saying the allegations against him were politically motivated.
China had promised Canada in a diplomatic note that Lai would not be tortured or executed and that Canadian officials would have access to him. But many legal experts and human rights activists said it was unlikely Lai could receive a fair trial in China.
David Matas, another of Lai’s Canadian lawyers, said the judge had allowed the extradition despite admitting that the diplomatic assurances would not let Canadian officials attend closed hearings.
But Federal Court Judge Michel Shore said Lai “has been found not to be at risk if removed to China on the basis of extraordinary assurances received and held as valid (by the Canadian government).”
Canada has no death penalty and will not usually extradite anyone to a state where capital punishment is practiced without assurances the suspect will not be executed.
The case exploded in the special economic zone of Xiamen in Fujian province in the mid-1990s when Jia Qinglin, now the ruling Communist Party’s fourth most senior leader, was the province’s Party boss.
Beijing has accused Lai’s business empire, the Yuanhua Group, of bribing officials to allow a massive smuggling ring in a scandal that implicated more than 200 senior figures, including Jia’s wife, Lin Youfang. She denied any wrongdoing.
China put more than 300 suspects on trial and sentenced 14 to death, including provincial officials and a former vice minister of public security, in a case Beijing has used for a propaganda campaign against corruption.
Lai admitted in a 2009 interview with Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper that he had avoided taxes by exploiting loopholes in the law, but he denies bribery charges. He said that had he not been in Canada he would have been executed.
Lai may face life imprisonment, Xinhua cited legal experts as saying Friday.
Reflecting the intensity of China’s official position on Lai, state media in 2001 cited then-Premier Zhu Rongji as saying Lai “should die three times, and even so that wouldn’t be enough.”
Additional reporting by Jacqueline Wong in Shanghai, Farah Master in Hong Kong, David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer in Ottawa; BEIJING by Wee Sui-Lee; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa